My Afrikaner identity

Let’s talk about adultery.

At a theatre workshop after introducing ourselves, we were asked to complete he sentence “I am…”  Someone said, “I am gay”, another “I am black”, still another I am “Christian”.  And me?  The best I could come up with was “I am Petro” (ny first name).  Yes I am heterosexual, female, white, Afrikaans, 32, a mother and visually disabled.  Yet, none of these things overpower the others to the extent that I could pick it as a primary identity classification.  The question annoyed me so that even now, years later I still feel my heart rate going up as I write about it.  Why this emotional reaction?  How then do I know myself and describe or live that self?  Why does my blood want to boil at a simple question of identity?

Be warned that what I say here is not new, or academically sound or even completely logical.  It is a rambling about my thoughts on the issue of identity.  I will start at one end and see where that leads me.  I am Afrikaans.  Other members of ‘die volk’ will say:  “I am an Afrikaner”, but personally I think that term is so politically loaded that I prefer simply saying I am Afrikaans.  Yet, for me, being Afrikaans is much more that speaking a particular language.  But, the ‘much more’ can not be defined in terms of something in itself, rather, it becomes meaningful as I live my life among non-Afrikaans speakers.  Among the liberal English academics where I work, I have learnt that I am more to the point than they are in meetings and discussions, yet, I am more blunt and unsophisticated in the way I relate to people on a personal level.  Yet, compared to my Afrikaans husband, I am very “English” in the way I try to be diplomatic and beat about the bush.  Truth be told, my darling man has been described as a real “Dutchman”.  The English folk who said this were ashamed of the derogatory nature of the term, yet I thought they were right.  He can be down right pigheaded and untactful in a way only an Afrikaans man (and maybe a Dutchman?) can..

Becoming the mother of a little boy also brought back a deep sense of what it means to be Afrikaans.  There is a reason why one’s first language is called your “mother tongue”.  I want my son to learn both English and Afrikaans, yet there is no way I could relate to him in any other language than my first.  I am often asked if I speak to him in English as well, and my answer is always the same.:  “only when there are English speaking people around.”  I think it is bad manners to speak in a language people do not understand in their presence.  But I feel insincere and false if I try to speak to him in English.  This is true even in situations where English people are around and so I often find myself breaking my own rule of speaking to him in English then.  What is it about this mother tongue thing?

Embedded in a language, I am sure, is the history of all who contributed to the formation of that language.  With the history come a value system and a certain perspective on the universe that cannot be transferred in another way as through the language.  Yet, after talking so much about the beauty and the deep connection I have to my mother tongue and how it goes beyond language in more ways than one, there is a major glitch. When I am with other Afrikaans speaking people, I discover how different I am from them.  When I am with my in-laws other parts of my identity become highlighted, such as my political persuasion.  I will never be comfortable in the company of people who talk about the old South Africa as though it was heaven on earth.  I will never again be comfortable in a Dutch reform church and as for “rys, vleis en aartapples” (rice, meat and potatoes) which is supposed to be a truly Afrikaans way of eating… I prefer a mix of all and everything that I find to be interesting, healthy or affordable at the time.

Since I have had my son, though, I have never felt more at home with them.  We agree on what manners he should learn, what stories he should be read and told and what songs we would like him to know.  We disagree on one issue and that is:  they find it very disturbing that we are on first name basis with him and that he does not know us as “mamma” and  “pappa”.  Of course, there are many of our English speaking friends that don’t get it either. We feel the same as with the question of identity.  Neither myself, nor my husband want our son to know us only in the role of parent.  We want him to know us as whole people.  No other term like our names can communicate the unique combination of identities that run through each of us.

We are all located on an intersection between many possible identities. These are in flux and they shift in importance from time to time, Sometimes you are with people who have a similar combination of identities to you, and you feel like you belong. Other times, often with the same group of people, you may find that one or more of the other identities feel left out.  We are always at home and lost at the same time.  Depending on what the conversation is about, or where you are in space or time and who you are with you may find your home, but it may only last for a moment or a while before you are at odds again.

In order to avoid the flux and the feeling of ‘being at odds’ we are often tempted into committing to just one of the identities. This means, instead of loving the one and only me, the unique combination of selves that is Petro, or James or Siphiwe, we look for love in a purer ideal demarcated by as few words as possible like ‘gay man’ or ‘jewish girl’. In my view, that amounts to adultery: loving some other ideal person that is not full of faults and history and memory and shade.  So here is the reason for my anger at the question of identity:  there is nothing that brings the blood of a good Calvinist, white Afrikaner to the boil like adultery..


Stereo types come from somewhere

I love to thwart stereotypes. When I ride my bicycle into Stellenbosch kitted out from head to foot in corporate gear complete with high heels, while all the other cyclists are heading out of town kitted out in helmets, gloves, tight padded shorts, water bottles and cycling glasses, I get a kick.

On this day, though, it would not be me who broke the stereotype.

As I often do, I drove down to the train station on my bike and chained it inside the station to the outer fence visible from the road, but safe inside. I boarded the train to Cape Town. It was mid morning and somewhat quieter than in early morning rush hour so I checked to see if I would be alone in the first class carriage or not.  To be safe, I get onto the third class carriage.

Even though I had never been mugged in the 5 years of train travel, there is a risk to a lonely carriage.  In third class are always lots of people, but this time of day it is not so sweaty and crowded as during rush hour. Here I break another stereotype usually being the only white woman in the crowd. This often causes motherly coloured ladies to watch over me and warn me to hold my bag close and keep my phone hidden. They make it safe for me here – there are far more people who care than people who don’t. I smile to the folks around me and listen to Daniel Pinks latest book on my ipod shuffle pinned to my collar underneath my jacket.

An hour and 10 min later, I meet a co-speaker friend of mine at the Cape Town station. Together we drive to our meeting in the 4 star lodge selected for its elegance and private boardroom. As we drive, I relish in the idea that I can straddle the two worlds of 3rd class travel and 4 star luxury this way. It makes me feel alive – even though I sometimes curse the late trains and the inconvenience of not being taken to the door of where I want to be.

After our meeting my friend colleague informs me that he will take me all the way home to Stellenbosh – he does not want me to take the train. This has happened before. People think the trains are less safe than their cars, but in truth, the trains are less familiar and one has less control over them. To me they are familiar enough and I have relinquished my control – or rather – I had never had control over my own transport, so I do not miss it.

I appreciate it very much, I say, but please understand that I am happy to travel by train and used to it. And, I think to myself “it leaves me feeling less dependent and indebted to you.” But I keep my thoughts to myself.

He insists and we leave. “You realise”, I try once more, “this will take you the better part of 2 precious hours”.

“If I was your husband and I knew a friend could have brought you home, I would expect that friend to do so.” I smile and think “Tell yourself whatever you have to, but my husband has made peace with the way I travel, otherwise it will take over his life. We both value my independence.”

On the way I tell him about a new client that wants me to work with their bottom level employees. Absenteeism and lack of motivation is writhe. They also feel entitled to all sorts of benefits, but are not willing to put in the hours.

“I don’t touch that level of employee”, he tells me, “it is too difficult to have an impact there.  I don’t think you can change anything on that level, the problems are too complex and ingrained in societal forces.”

“Wow, I would think these guys would have the most to benefit – call me an idealist, but who will spend time motivating them and really listening to their dreams and ideals?”

“No, I don’t touch them.”

We draw close to Stellenbosch and I ask him to please take me to the train station because that is where I left my bicycle. I secretly wish he could just take me straight home. The train ride does not u irk me, it is the long way home uphill at the end of a tiring day, but there is no way out. I shouldn’t leave my bike there overnight, its not safe and there is no room in his car for it (a luxury sedan is no pick-up truck). We are near the station now and we see a guy on a bike.

“We will see my bicycle from the street inside when we stop, unless that is my bike over there” and I point to the guy on the bike driving away.

He laughs and I smirk at the thought. Jokes like this one is only possible because of the stereotypical idea that the people who travel by train are the same people who would steal a bike if they get a chance.  Yes, we both know it could easily have been my bike – stereotypes come from somewhere.

We find my bike where I left it inside the station, but visible from the road.  My friend says he will wait to make sure everything is ok. I can understand his concern: where my bicycle stands a group of workers, or commuters have made themselves at home in a clump on the ground. They are laughing and talking and playing dice – a ruckus bunch of workers waiting to go home. It is the type of group you could find on a street corner congregating on their way from work, or having a smoke and a drink before heading home – but they were ‘not our people’.

For a moment I think of the time I found my bike with the saddle loosened and almost removed – one guy in a group like that can easily fiddle with the bike to see if he can take it apart or remove a piece to sell somewhere. Yet, I choose to  travel on trust not suspicion.

I walk in among the crowd of men. “good evening guys, thanks for looking after my bike.”

“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I step over legs and make my way through the gazes. As I unlock the chain the front wheel twists and the bike falls over. Immediately there is a guy at hand to help it up again.


“No problem , Madam, no problem.”

I smile over at my friend in his car, but cannot see his face. I am so proud of myself. I steer carefully through the group and they make way. I go around and out. I am back on the other side of the fence and my group of bike guards are still watching me as I get ready to mount the saddle and leave, but one of them had followed me outside.

“On no,” I think to myself “here it comes. He is going to ask me for money or net ‘n stukkie brood, Mies (just a small piece of bread Ma’am.” I look up and smile at him, ready to do my usual head shake and disappointed expression. (I am not so proud of myself as I write this. Where is my trust now? Yet, stereotypes come from somewhere.  I look at my friend mournfully: his own misgivings will become justified…

“what do you want?” say my face.

“No problem , Madam, no problem. Just remember to put your pant leg inside your sock so it doesn’t catch in the chain.”

He smiles and waves as I leave.

I smile and wave at my friend. But I cannot see his face.